By Angelica Cullen, Feature Editor Originally published in Issue 4, Volume 33 of The University Register on October 23, 2020
Halloween is celebrated by millions of people around the country every year, but not everyone knows exactly from where the holiday originated. According to History.com, “Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago, mostly in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1.”
The significance of this date marked a transition from summer, (or harvesting season), to winter. The common belief among Celtic people was that “the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.”
The Roman Empire also had a strong influence on what is now Halloween. During the 400 years that they occupied Celtic territories, two Roman festivals were mixed with Samhain traditions. The first festival, Feralia, was held in late October to honor the dead. The second was a celebration of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Because a symbol of Pomona is the apple, “the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of bobbing for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.”
In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV established All Martyr’s Day as a Catholic feast, which was later expanded to include all saints as well. In 1000 AD, the Catholic church designated Nov. 2 to be All Souls Day which is “widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, church-sanctioned holiday.”
All Souls Day was celebrated with bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes, not unlike some Samhain traditions. It began to be called ‘All-Hallow’s Day’, with the preceding night being called ‘All Hallow’s Eve.’ This eventually morphed into ‘Halloween.’ In colonial American culture, a predecessor to Halloween celebrations were ‘play parties.’ These events were more common in southern colonies due to the strict Protestant beliefs held in New England. The parties were held to celebrate the harvest and included dancing, singing, and sharing stories of the dead.
In the late 1800s, a movement arose encouraging community leaders and parents to leave anything ‘frightening’ or ‘grotesque’ out of the celebrations. Parties became more focused on foods that were in season, games, and costumes.
By the 1920s, Halloween had become “a secular but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide Halloween parties as the featured entertainment.” Trick-or-treating regained popularity between the 1920s and the 1950s as a way to gear the holiday more towards children and to involve the community as a whole in the festivities.
Trick-or-treating was most likely derived from the All Souls Day parades that were held in England. During these parades, impoverished people begging for food would receive ‘soul cakes’ in exchange for promising to pray for that person’s dead relatives. This practice, which became known as “going a-souling,” was taken up by children, who went door to door to be given ale, food, and money.
The history of donning costumes was derived from both European and Celtic traditions. Because of the belief that ghosts could roam the earthly world freely, masks were worn to prevent ghosts from recognizing them as alive. People would also leave bowls of food outside of their houses to appease spirits and prevent them from entering the home.